Traditional surgery for pancreatic cancer requires a lengthy, open procedure and lots of recovery time. Now, advancements in robotics are making it possible for doctors to operate in this delicate area near the bile ducts and major blood vessels, in a minimally-invasive way. 

In 2011, Helen Byrne began having pain in her side. An ultrasound showed kidney stones, and something else; three cysts in her pancreas. 

“One in the head of the pancreas. Being a nurse I understood the complexity of what that could mean,” Helen said.

The cysts were not cancerous at the time, so for four years, her doctor; Emory Winship Surgical Oncologist David Kooby, kept a watchful eye on them. 

“It will turn to cancer at some point; the goal is to get it out before it gets there,” Helen said. 

Helen was one of Dr. Kooby’s first patients to undergo robotic surgery to remove pancreatic cysts. With robotics, Dr. Kooby is able to control tiny instruments and a camera inserted through keyhole incisions in the abdomen. 

“I can use one instrument to retract an organ, two instruments to work with. I can decide where the camera is going to be. It has increased stability, and it has binocular vision so I can actually see in three dimension,” David Kooby, MD, Professor of Surgery and Chief of Emory Surgery, Northern Arc, at Emory Winship Cancer Institute explained.

With the robotic surgery, many patients report having less pain, a shorter hospital stay, and a faster recovery.

Dr. Kooby continued, “As we get better at it, and the technology gets better we may see patients get back to chemotherapy faster after surgery.” 

“It didn’t slow me down having surgery, hardly at all,” Helen said.

Because it requires specialized training and is considered to be a complicated procedure, the robotic surgery for pancreatic cancer is only performed at a handful of major U.S. medical centers, including UPMC in Pittsburgh, Memorial Sloan Kettering, and University of Southern California.